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Praying for meltdown: The media and the nukes

Science and the public lose out with TV's Hollywood disaster film obsession

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Comment Sensationalism has always been part of the popular media - but Fukushima is a telling and troubling sign of how much the media has changed in fifty years: from an era of scientific optimism to one where it inhabits a world of fantasy - creating a real-time Hollywood disaster movie with a moralising, chivvying message.

Not so long ago, the professionals showed all the deferential, forelock-tugging paternalism of the dept of "Keep Calm And Carry On". That era lasted into the 1960s. Now the driving force is the notion that "We're all DOOMED – and it's ALL OUR FAULT" that marks almost every news bulletin. Health and environment correspondents will rarely be found debunking the claims they receive in press releases from lobby groups – the drama of catastrophe is too alluring. Fukushima has been the big one.

The Fukushima situation has yet to cause any measurable radiological health effects, and workers at the site were far less hard hit by the quake, tsunami and related events than just about anyone in the disaster zone, but nonetheless the nuclear story rapidly eclipsed the tens of thousands killed directly by the quake. TV's reaction to the crisis shows how at odds it is with a more rational audience, those who know something about radiation, its consequences, and the human body's capacity to absorb it and recover from it. The crisis for the media is that thanks to the internet, we can now all bypass these conduits for superstition and stupidity.

We've given the media's treatment of Fukushima plenty of attention in the past fortnight, so it's hardly worth reiterating. The reactors endured a Force 9 earthquake and 15m high tsunami – and three safety systems failed. The ageing plant was never going to explode or meltdown ("like a dirty bomb" we were told); the containment vessels held firm.

In the first weekend, TV chose "experts" who could be relied upon to ignore this - and instead highlight the mythology of nuclear hazards. I noted two examples in the first forty eight hours. The BBC chose a radiation expert called Dr Christopher Busby, billing him as a former adviser to the government on radiation.

"If this stuff comes out then it's going to make what's happened so far, in terms of the tsunami damage, look a little bit like an entrée to the real course," predicted Busby, sending viewers diving behind the sofa.

But Busby's chief notoriety is his modelling work on natural background radiation, which is highly controversial. It's often self-published, and the Journal of Radiological Protection put out a paper (PDF/45KB) debunking his work, pointing out serious flaws.

"Chris Busby ... is apparently quite prepared to self-publish reports containing glaring errors in data and/or analyses; nonetheless, the findings are duly given publicity in the media, presumably a principal objective. Efforts should be made to enable journalists, in particular, to distinguish between the reliability to be placed upon the results given in self-published documents and those appearing in scientific journals," the journal noted in 2004.

Was he there to keep the plot of the disaster movie rolling, or to provide clear scientific advice?

Busby, it must be remembered, is also a scientific advisor to the Green Party. As the Institute of Physics pointed out:

"Chris Busby is essentially an aspiring politician who happens to have scientific qualifications – he is the Green Party’s spokesperson on science and technology and has stood for election to the European Parliament – and, in my view, his actions must be seen in this light. It would be asking too much of him to make substantial concessions on the very issue that has brought the media publicity that provides the fuel to drive a political career."

Meanwhile Channel 4 found a Professor Walt Patterson, from think-tank Chatham House, who also talked up the disaster. An advocate of global governance and a critic of nuclear power (and more recently fossil fuels) for 40 years, his reaction was predictable. Another anti-nuclear activist, John Large, also passed himself off as an unbiased pundit on the news channels. He's Greenpeace's favourite "hired gun".

"What the Japanese government are trying to do is consistent with a major radiological disaster," Patterson opined on Channel 4 News. And what I try to do with a football, sometimes, is consistent with a World Cup winning hat-trick. But not quite the same thing.

Admittedly, it's hard to find talking heads at weekends. But even if Bohr, Einstein and Teller had been wandering past the gates of TV centre (or Horseferry Road) that weekend, one suspects the producers wouldn't have been interested. They wouldn't fit the script.

Words like "meltdown" and "radiation leak" have a mythical potency – and TV reported the mythology, not the facts. Fukushima came to represent man's hubris and his folly in "defying nature". The Daily Mail, for example, helpfully made this quite clear: "Nature's Deadly Rage, it fumed. You could hear echoes all over the media. BBC TV News described "nature’s fury".

It's an interesting metaphor.

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